Understanding Vision Loss: What Social Workers Need to Know


by Steve Reinhardt, LCSW and AnneMarie O’Hearn, MPA

Stephen Reinhard, LCSW, has been with Lighthouse Guild since 1975. He has been the Director of Lighthouse Guild’s Psychiatric Clinic since 2004. He has extensive experience in working with the psychiatric issues facing people who are visually impaired and blind in direct practice, clinical supervision and administration.  Mr. Reinhard received his Master of Social Work from Columbia University and his Bachelor of Arts from Yeshiva University.

Annemarie O’Hearn joined Lighthouse Guild in 1998. She is currently Vice President Education and Training and is responsible for strategically developing and implementing a national program of vision rehabilitation training for healthcare professionals. Ms. O’Hearn has a BS in Education from The College of St. Rose and a Masters in Public Administration from the Rockefeller College of the State University of New York at Albany.

Vision loss is one of the most feared medical conditions.  It changes patients’ lives dramatically. For many, it occurs at a time in life when they may be dealing with other major life changes such as the death of a spouse or other serious health conditions. The impact on patients’ health, well-being, productivity and quality of life can be severe. 

Being told you are losing vision can be overwhelming. Patients worry about losing their independence, particularly the ability to drive, and fear they will become overly dependent on others. Depression, anxiety, emotional distress and sleep deprivation are common following diagnosis and may persist over time or recur as vision worsens.

Patients with depressive symptoms also experience more functional limitations.  For example, older adults with vision loss and severe depression are more likely to have difficulty with physical activities and more likely to experience problems with social interests. 

Social workers and other providers of behavioral services play an active role in helping patients to adjust to vision loss. As key members of the care team, social workers demonstrate knowledge, understanding and empathy, which helps to generate patient acceptance, and leads to more successful rehabilitative outcomes. 

Lighthouse Guild’s eLearning program “Understanding and Addressing Vision Loss” prepares social workers to address the wide-ranging impacts of vision loss, including how to conduct basic psychosocial assessments for depression, anxiety, substance abuse and memory.

Vision loss is often a difficult topic of conversation for both patients and social workers. The program provides tips for talking with patients in ways that help them cope and accept services including:

  • Encouraging patients to describe their vision loss, how they’re feeling about it, and how it is impacting their lives
  • Understanding that patients and families may express strong emotions and reactions
  • Assuring patients without overwhelming them with too much information
  • Dispelling myths about people with vision loss being helpless and dependent and helping them on the road to rehabilitation

Increasing awareness of vision rehabilitation and facilitating access to appropriate services in the community can improve the daily activities of individuals who have vision loss. Social workers can also help patients with vision loss overcome barriers and build confidence and independence in their lives.